TORONTO, ONTARIO - I was late with holiday cards this year, much more so than usual, for a variety of reasons. As I was struggling to get the last of my set destined for the eastern United States finished earlier this evening, it struck me just how detailed the tradition has become for me--right down to the exact pens that I use.
The process begins with updating my address book. I suppose the very first step is making a fast check of that spreadsheet and counting up how many holiday cards I need to order. I then make up the cards and have them printed. In the old days, that meant taking a negative to the photo drop-off location at the grocery store, but in the digital era (for me, that's since 2005), that's meant going to one of the on-line photo sites to put the card together.
Then, after checking alumni web sites for any changes amongst my more distant past peers, I usually send out several dozen e-mails to people that I either know or suspect may have moved over the course of the year. While some of us could be counted on to move regularly during graduate school, I haven't noticed much decrease in the number of people moving as my friends have aged. When I think I've gotten most of the address update replies, I print out the spreadsheet.
The next step is writing up my holiday letter. Once upon a time, I used to have several distinctly-written versions based on the intended audience (e.g. former high school teachers) and didn't do much customizations to those forms. In recent years, I've just had one version, and have attempted much more customization, which usually works out pretty well for the first several dozen and not so well with a week to go until Christmas.
When it comes time to actually send the letters, I group by geographic area and work through the list. Cards bound outside North America come first (those are all late this year--sorry), followed usually by Canada, the eastern United States, and the western United States last, though the order can vary based on where I'm actually located when doing the cards. If I remain in Canada until late in the season, then those for the western United States go first and the Canadian cards are last, since they still have a fighting chance to be delivered on time.
When I choose which card I'm going to do next, I customize the holiday letter if I'm doing one (those I see in person or otherwise communicate with frequently and know what I'm up to generally don't receive a letter), send it to the printer, and then pull the same blue Eppendorf pen I've been using since at least 1999 to do the inside of the card. After signing the letter with the same blue pen, I then switch to the same black pen I've also been using for at least a decade to hand-address the envelope. It occurred to me this year how amazing it is that I've been using the same pens for this purpose for an entire decade and through multiple geographic locations. That may reveal just how infrequently I use the pens outside of the holiday season. For that matter, I'm still using the same printer toner cartridges that I've been using since 2006--five years of holiday cards on the same toner strikes me as a pretty good record.
Once postage is affixed, I use a pencil to put a check mark next to that line of the spreadsheet, and move on to the next card. The process is repeated dozens of times, over many nights, until I'm finally done. This year, that probably won't happen until tomorrow night.
A friend recently asked why I still do printed cards and letters, considering all the on-line services I could use for the same purpose that would be much cheaper and much easier. Besides tradition, I still have too many older relatives that really can only be reached by postal mail or phone. It still isn't really an accepted practice to send on-line holiday greetings to business colleagues, either. So, until those two things change, I'm sticking with the traditional process, no matter how much work it turns out to be.